I was editing an article recently, and something about it was bugging me. I thought about it and then I realized that it was the word “the” in front of certain words to describe certain groups of people: for example, “the elderly,” “the mentally ill,” etc.
None of these terms are particularly offensive, but by pointing toward these terms with the definite article “the,” a little bit of bias is subtly betrayed. Bias is not necessarily a bad thing; we all have it because we all have a point of view that is informed by our relative position in society and who we consider to be in our in group or out group. (I just used my Anthropology degree there. Yay.) Even if we are careful with the words we choose, a little bit of “the” can make a quality or condition define and group people into the category of being outside of our in group (which in anthropology is called “othering”).
So, look out for “the.” Have you used it to describe a group of people? If you have, consider revising.
For example, instead of ______, choose ______:
- the elderly > elderly people, senior citizens, seniors
- the mentally ill > people with mental illness
- the disabled > people with disabilities
It’s a subtle change, but it puts the person first, rather than the person’s state of being. It may feel a little PC – and who hasn’t gotten frustrated with trying to keep up with changes in preferred terminology that people in our multifaceted society may prefer – and add an extra word or two, but it’s one more way to ensure our words don’t define others by their condition.